Early childhood memories of a Cambodian refugee camp

In 1991, sixteen Khmer families from Cambodian refugee camps (mostly from Khao I Dang) received asylum in the Netherlands. On November 5, 2016, we celebrated the 25th anniversary. To commemorate our stay in the Netherlands, I would like to share some of my early childhood memories about being born in a Cambodian refugee camp in 1986.

I understand that my story is just one small, but essential part of my family’s overall journey for safety from the civil war (1967-1975), Khmer Rouge (1975-1979) regime, and the subsequent Vietnamese occupation. According to some estimates, 2 million out of 8 million people died during this long period. This figure has been contested many times. I don’t think anyone knows how many people have actually died, but if I look at the family members of my parents’ households: 40% from my mum’s side died and 25% from my dad’s side.

Khao I Dang, the refugee camp where I was born

My parents were forced to work in labour camps in the countryside in Battambang by the Khmer Rouge. They eventually met each other while fleeing from Battambang to the Thai border when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. As with most fleeing Cambodians, my parents decided to get together – not out of love, but more out of the need and desire to share their hardships. This was after all, a months-long journey through the heart of the Cambodian jungle in which my father lost his father, the granddad I never came to know. My mother lost her brother and her father. As my mother was separated from her brother early on during the Khmer Rouge regime and never witnessed his death, she had always held hope that one day she would find him again.

My parents’ long journey towards Thailand brought them to the Sa Kaeo camp which was the first organized refugee camp that opened in 1979. Within just 8 days, the refugee population grew to 30,000. The camp eventually closed down half a year later, because of unfavorable conditions. The drainage in the campsite was for example so poor that several refugees, too weak to lift their heads, drowned from a flood as they laid on the floor in tents made of plastic sheets.

One month after the opening of Sa Kaeo, the Khao I Dang camp was opened and many people were repatriated into Khao I Dang. My parents eventually ended up there as well.

Khao I Dang camp

Khao I Dang was a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border where I was born. It was a bamboo village with dirt roads, barbed wire, and armed guards. Within just 5 months, the camp’s population reached 160,000. Population wise, this would make the camp the 11th largest municipality in the Netherlands.

Although the camp gave us more safety, violence and theft ran rampant.

Religion and death

People continued their religious activities and some houses were transformed into places for Buddhist ceremonies. In this picture you see my two brothers, my father, and I wearing our best clothes. We just came back from a visit to a local ‘temple’. The husband of my aunty, who had just been allowed to find refuge in Australia, had recently died in the camp.

My two brothers, me, and my father

Behind me is a grave of him. My father hired a photographer to take this picture so that he could send it to my aunty. I am the one barefooted.

Hospital

My father worked at the hospital. The hospital was a large hall with beds placed next to each other. I remember that I visited the hospital where I was given a doctor’s gloves to play with. I would blow it and enjoy a child’s kick out of it.

Hospital in Khao I Dang

Night raids

I remember that during some nights, rebels with guns would raid people’s houses to steal their belongings. Often, the word about night raids spread faster than the rebels themselves, and so most of the times we were warned before the rebels reached us. I remember very well one incident when we did not flee early enough.

My brothers and I ran after my father, while my mother took my baby sister in her arms to flee in separate directions. My father brought us into a nearby canal to hide there. When the Thai patrolling soldiers within the camp arrived at the scene, shooting between the two groups erupted. When I think back to this moment, I can still clearly feel the fear I had. I wanted to cry, but my father put his hands tightly on my mouth so that I would not make any sound. We then fled to the hospital where my father was working, and stayed there during the night. We were too afraid to go back home, and waited until the next morning.

In another incident, our neighbors were too late to flee and somehow for reasons unknown, a rebel threw a hand grenade inside their little home that killed the whole family.

Kindergarten

Despite the violence and misery, people tried to rebuild their normal lives. I went to kindergarten and remember so well one incident that I played hooky.

I was 4 years old and walking to school by myself, I stopped and decided to return home to my mother’s small shop. This is an incident that I am personally extremely proud of. As long as I can remember, I have always detested school. I hated to sit still and to be told what to do and what not to do. I took this attitude with me to the Netherlands, and still today I am very critical of schooling. My mother, a soft young woman, let me stay with her at the shop. But then my father came by, got angry with me, and spanked me for not going to school. Until this day I still don’t think that I did anything wrong.

Our little shop

Trade went on. Although it was illegal, industrious people were trying to make money by starting small businesses. This shows to me that entrepreneurship is natural to us human beings, and that economics and trade are naturally emerging processes as people are always looking for ways to improve their lot and to fulfill their needs.

Thai merchants would come to the fences, away from the Thai soldiers who were patrolling, in order to sell food to the refugees inside. Such activities occurred during night-time. When Thai soldiers would find out that we were trading with outsiders, they would beat us and take away our belongings. We, refugees, were also not allowed to get outside of the camp or we would risk being shot dead by Thai soldiers.

My mother, my brothers and I at our little shop. I am the one in the blue jersey

During day-time, people inside the camp would expose their new belongings and small shops would emerge. My mother sold small products of convenience. Some of it was smuggled by Thai people into the camps that we, Cambodians, were selling to other Cambodians. Other things like oil and sugar were given to us as part of a food relief program that we used sparingly so that we could sell it further. With the money we earned, we could then buy other goods that we needed more.

Other ways through which we made money was by brewing alcohol made from rice and apples. Although alcohol was illegal, it did not stop my parents from brewing it. Whenever a Thai soldier would come to our house for inspection – I don’t think you can really hide the alcoholic odor that was surrounding our little house when we were brewing alcohol – my parents would bribe him with money so that he would leave us alone.

Continuing story

These are some of my childhood memories of our lives in Khao I Dang. Maybe next time I can tell more about our life in the camp, share some of my older brothers’ memories, our cat that was lost, killed and eaten by someone or my first encounter with inspiring Superman and Spider-Man comic books. Maybe, I will also write about our continuing journey to the Netherlands and the psychological impact my experiences in Khao I Dang had on me. I can tell about the nightmares that haunted me until my teenage years, how I always felt alienated from the people here and the inferiority complex towards Dutch people that I developed as a little child for feeling different. Feeling different made me feel insecure. Every time I met someone, and I think it lasted until my later teenage years, I would always ponder whether the person would kill me if he would be put in similar circumstances as those many killers from the Khmer Rouge period. In other words: as a child, I already wondered excessively about the “banality of evil”. These thoughts were of course extremely unhealthy, especially when you are as young as 4 or 5 years old.

The biggest lesson I have learned from my childhood is that both good and bad experiences are important in our lives. Happiness, in my opinion, is very much overrated and hardship is at least as valuable.

I have not written this so that people pity me. Pity, and in particular self-pity, is an extremely damaging emotion. It multiplies our suffering and reveals an extremely pathological egoism. When I look back at the hardships my family has overcome, I like to remind myself of Haruki Murakami’s saying that “only assholes feel sorry for themselves”.

Small Thought On The Terrorist Attack in Paris, France

What the attack in Paris has made clear to me is that there is a deep hatred amongst people against the west. I believe that much of this hatred stems from the same roots from which my discontents with the west had also grown – western interventionist policies with foreign nations. I also sense such discontents among the few people that I know from Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, and Serbia.

My displeasures with the west originate from the personal stories of my parents who, before they became victims of the Khmer Rouge, were also victims of American bombings of Cambodia – a fact that is not widely known. The bombardments that started in 1965 ended in 1973, and had killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Indeed, before the Khmer Rouge took power over Cambodia in 1975 and before they sent all people to the rural areas to grow foodstuffs for ‘Angkar’ (the Organization/the State), there were already widespread famines and scores of displaced people due to the bombings. It had created a chaotic climate in which the anti-western, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist propaganda of the Khmer Rouge found their way into people’s minds – mostly into the minds of those poor rural Cambodian people that were suffering most from the secret bombings. Ben Kiernan writes in ‘Bombs over Cambodia’ (2004):

Years after the war ended, journalist Bruce Palling asked Chhit Do, a former Khmer Rouge officer, if his forces had used the bombing as antiAmerican propaganda. Chhit Do replied:

“Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters, to see how big and deep the craters were, to see how the earth had been gouged out and scorched . . . . The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them. . . . Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

Cambodia, together with Laos, still remains one of the heaviest bombed countries in the history of the world.[1] My parents were just 7-8 years old at the advent of the secret bombings. Imagine that a drone would bomb the school of your child or the hospital in which your loved ones are, would you not feel enraged? Would you not want to take revenge on those that are responsible?

A pre-moral person looks at the consequences of the actions. He sees the attacks, he acknowledges the dead, he becomes emotional and judges firmly. A moral person withholds his judgements and attempts to comprehend the causes of the attackers’ actions. I do not want to justify the killings of the French people, but I would like to emphasize that if we were really to honor the victims, we should reflect on the question why there are people that hate the west so fiercely. Maybe our society itself is part of a larger machine that is the origin of foreign hatred against the west. We must not only realize that religious fundamentalism is a danger to the world, but that there is a more contemptible false idol which is democratic fundamentalism – the uncritical acceptance that democracy is equal to liberty, that it is always superior and that, if necessary, it should be spread with violence.

As long as we, as a society, fail to reflect on ourselves and the political system we participate in, we will never find a fundamentally peaceful solution.

Footnote
[1] See Ben Kiernan’s ‘Bombs Over Cambodia: New Light On US Air War

Some Interesting Information On The Chinese In Cambodia

This comes straight from Wikipedia. It shows the tremendous success of the Chinese in Cambodia. It seems like everywhere the Chinese live, they thrive.

Willmot had estimated that 90% of the Chinese in Cambodia were involved in commerce in 1963. Today, an estimated 60% are urban dwellers engaged mainly in commerce, with most of the rural population working as shopkeepers, processors of food products (such as rice, palm sugar, fruit, and fish), and moneylenders. Those in Kampot Province and parts of Kaoh Kong Province cultivate black pepper and fruit (especially rambutans, durians, and coconuts). Additionally, some rural Chinese Cambodians are engaged in salt water fishing. In the 19th century, French colonials allowed Chinese-run businesses to flourish. William Willmott, a mid-century expert on Chinese communities, claimed the ethnic Chinese controlled 92 percent of Cambodian commerce in the mid-20th century. They traded in urban areas and worked as shopkeepers, moneylenders and traditional healers in rural areas, while Chinese farmers controlled Cambodia’s lucrative Kampot pepper industry. Most Chinese Cambodian moneylenders wield considerable economic power over the ethnic Khmer peasants through usury. Studies in the 1950s revealed that Chinese shopkeepers in Cambodia would sell to peasants on credit at interest rates of 10-20% a month. This might have been the reason why seventy-five percent of the peasants in Cambodia were in debt in 1952, according to the Australian Colonial Credit Office. There seemed to be little distinction between Chinese and Sino-Khmer (offspring of mixed Chinese and Khmer descent) in the moneylending and shopkeeping enterprises. Chinese Cambodian entrepreneurs are also estimated to control 70% of the industrial investment and are actively engaged in trading, construction, small-scale manufacturing, and food processing.

Of particular note is China’s economic role in the country, which encouraged Sino-Khmer businessmen to reestablish their past business which were once suppressed by the Khmer Rouge. Modern Cambodian economy is highly dependent on Sino-Khmer companies who controlled a large stake in the country’s economy, and their support is enhanced by the large presence of lawmakers who are of at least part-Chinese ancestry themselves. The position of the Chinese minority has undergone a dramatic turn for the better and the Chinese seem to have regained much of their previous economic clout. For various reasons, including the growing economic collaboration between China and Cambodia and the huge investments being made by Chinese companies, the Chinese community has seen its numbers expand dramatically in the 2000s (decade).